This is the first long piece in a series of variously-sized literary analyses from the lofty thinker and talented writer Danny Marroquin on James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Since it goes into such exquisite depth, we are spreading the piece out over several pages. We orginally spread it out over multiple days – here is the full content of the piece. Set down stay awhile for this heartfelt and inspirational take on Agee and Evans’ epic creation. – Liz
What is this?
An unusual young man named James Agee was once sent by his editors at Fortune magazine to write about living with the tenant farmers hardest hit by the Great Depression. These were people across the nation who found themselves subject to Landlord exploitation, eking out a meager living on a small parcel of land to which they had no legal rights. His experimental, modernist, critical, religious account of what he saw was turned down by the magazine and one publishing house. The book was published five years after it was assigned and it sold very few copies. Yet, over time it has continued to emerge in the imaginations of this country’s finest writers and in the bloodstream of this country’s most impassioned movements: Civil Rights, the New Journalism movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and the memoir craze of today.
This article is a searching tribute to Agee’s efforts, considered by an Oklahoman. Our fair state has roots very similar to the setting of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – in fact, Oklahoma was Agee and Evans’ first choice in their search for farmers. The book now endures as an important expression of the human spirit and American dissent in these times marked by recession economics, a culturally divided country, and widespread inequalities in the standard of living.
I’ve made effort to pay aesthetic tribute to Agee’s peace bomb. This book is alive with dynamite and love, and there are ways to share this beyond print. I’ve made a brief playlist that includes the Agee-approved Beethoven Symphony No. 9, and some of my own contributions for your listening pleasure. As the songs play, you might get a sense, as I have, of the busy veins and ventricles of Agee’s human effort. I’ve also selected a few pictures from Lynn Rostochil, OKC.net’s roving photographer. She snapped some shots of small businesses and homes in south Oklahoma City before these things were cleared away. Houses languish, people abide and the river flows.
For book and film people, I’ve included traces of Agee’s aesthetic into a recommended reading/watching list. This is how his style of seeing and looking has endured. Art leaves the hands of its creator and diffuses into the hands of others; though Agee died quite lonely and comparatively unrecognized by a mass audience, his efforts survive again and again in other works of love. I believe all these works have a common denominator of spirit that I find hard to define, but very palpable, and you I hope you will too as you read.
Suggested music to read by
Pictures From Roving Photographer Lynne Rostochil
Another note from the editor: This short selection from Lynne Rostochil’s portfolio of work depicts familiar scenes from our fair city. Some of these places were swept away after her pictures were taken. Some of them seem as though they could be our own doorstep or that of our neighbor just down the street. We know these places in one way or another, but the photos remind us of specifics.
On viewing these images, please consider our thoughts on why we share them and examine this statement also in relation to Agee and Evans’ masterpiece –
Photographic representations of poverty, structural decay, and weathered people are important documents for all walks of life; the physical endurance of photos offers us and future generations a chance to understand the reality of the whole human race in a completely wordless language. Rather than approaching these or Walker Evans’ images with a grim, judgmental, or voyeuristic eye, we ask the viewer to reflect on the strength of humanity as it lives on through various conditions. Celebrate with us the beauty of enduring. -Liz
(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Photos (c) Lynne Rostochil All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce photos without Lynne’s permission.
Timeline for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
B.C. – In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the phrase “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us…” is used.
1909 – James Rufus Agee born in Knoxville, Tennessee.
1916 – Agee, age six, loses father to car accident. No more Chaplin movies and late-night diners together.
1919 – At St. Andrews Episcopal school he meets first literary/manly role model, Father James Harold Flye.
1928 – Agee is admitted to Harvard, with little help from his mother, who wrote the Dean, “His one enthusiasm is English, and writing, in which he is above average…In all else he is careless…He has always been a very high strung boy, nervously tending much to introspection. At present he is intensely modern in all his thinking and theories in need of better balance.”
1936 – Agee with Walker Evans is sent to Alabama to cover days in the life of struggling tenant farmers. Agee becomes possessed and starts writing on a project he struggles to control.
December 1936 – Fortune magazine drops the story. Agee decides to fashion the material into a book.
May 1939 – Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath published, steals Agee’s readership before his novel is published.
1941 – The book is named Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and published by Houghton Mifflin. The 471-page volume cost $3.50 and contained 62 Walker Evans photos. It sold 600 copies and vanished from the public eye. Used copies sold for 19 cents.
1951 – John Huston and James Agee finish the script for The African Queen.
May 16, 1955 – James Agee dies in a New York taxi cab at age 45.
1958 – Agee’s only novel A Death in the Family wins the Pulitzer Prize.
1964 – Civil Rights volunteers trek to Alabama to help with voter registration, copies of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in their bags.
Thanks to John Hersey and Laurence Bergreen for their research work.
Suggested or Related Readings: Appeals to Humanity
Agee on Film (seen at Full Circle’s Library of America section) – Some ecstatic writing here. One can feel Agee taking sanctuary in film, from an era when critics would truly stand behind their picks, unlike modern quasi-intellectual tepid stuff. Includes the Tennessee Valley Authority piece and other journalistic essays.
Larry McMurtry – Horseman, Pass By – McMurtry, a boy wonder, wrote this in his 20s under the influence of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as he tells us in Walter Benjamin and the Dairy Queen. It’s hard to identify Famous Men‘s influence – his prose is measured in comparison to Agee’s unwieldy structure. His elegiac voice is ever present in this slim gem of a novel about a dissipated family that’s about to lose its cattle.
Charles Chaplin – City Lights (film) – Agee’s favorite screen actor. When the little tramp asks the girl, Do You See? He said as much as Agee did in 400 some pages.
Night of the Hunter – (film, Agee as writer) – Spooky film. Black humor in the writing and Robert Mitchum’s performance. Will recycle itself in Cape Fear. Script re-written by the British director and storyteller Charles Laughton…but you can see the Agee stuff.
Terrence Malick – The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven (all films) – American director that can only film what he wants to film. His pastoral images and southern narrators get to the heart of the mysterious passions that course through middle America. Thin Red Line looks like an Agee novel reads.
John Huston – Wise Blood, African Queen (w/ Agee as writer), The Treasure of Sierra Madre – With The African Queen, we are glad Agee stalked Huston down. His attention to human interactions resulted in career performances from Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (play) – There are searches for religion here. There are quiet spots that call to mind the friends Beckett lost during WWII. Bravely, he worked for the French Resistance as a translator. Godot’s spontaneous exaltations resemble Agee’s most virtuosic passages. Like Famous Men, it is a result of the hardest kind of living.
Woody Guthrie – I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore (song) – Woody’s words better than anything capture that sense of the “homelessness of the human spirit.”
Rilla Askew – The Mercy Seat – This Pen/Faulkner award nominee now teaches writing at UCO. Her historical novel The Mercy Seat captures that old language, draws from the Old Testament, and finds resilient characters in the wild.
Paul Thomas Anderson – There Will Be Blood (film) – There’s an individualism and ferocity in this film that gurgles, most noticeably when Agee and Daniel Plainview say the phrase “more to the point.” Two crazy plain speakers with two radically different agendas.
David Foster Wallace – The Kenyon College Commencement speech – This is my favorite work of Wallace’s. Like Agee, he liked to release his every thought into print. This speech is a miracle of empathy and seeing the cosmic in the simple. Like the tirades of Famous Men, the speech is a challenge to American liberal orthodoxy. Maybe you’re not better than the hummer driver. Maybe the overweight people in the Wal-Mart line are trying. Maybe not everyday is ecstatic. When will you entertain that there are other possibilities, other stories you’re not considering? Wallace urges us to drop all airs of superiority in favor of looking around and training your eye for details. Which of course Agee did.
David Gordon Green – George Washington (film) – A praise song in the key of rust and the images of calloused hands and sweat on foreheads. This movie is in praise of working men. I don’t know if Green read Agee or not, but he’s clearly doing the same kind of work. Light humor and spontaneous acts of expression swoop in to give Green’s work a fresh aesthetic. Young people made this movie.
Cormac McCarthy – Child of God, Suttree – McCarthy wrote these novels in a farmhouse he refurbished himself. For the fireplace, McCarthy grabbed a few stones from James Agee’s boyhood home in Knoxville, which was being cleared away for Urban renewal.
James Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – Agee would study photos of Joyce’s head to try to figure out if he too was a genius. He certainly inherited some wings from Joyce’s audacious Portrait.
Hunter S. Thompson- Hell’s Angels – Excellent media critiques, and musings on what it is to cover a different kind of people. Experiential journalism after Agee.
George Orwell – Road to Wigan Pier – Orwell came away from living with coal miners with a sense of awe in their physical strength and the smaller things–like the warmth and unity of their dinner table.
William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying – A masterful performance of the stream-of-conscious techniques Agee uses in the insult-to-prayer passage I highlight above.
Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass – Agee’s very proud mother never fully supported Agee’s work. But she loved to claim being a descendant of Walt. As did James.
Barack Obama – The Arizona Memorial Speech (Jan. 12, 2011) – Barack steps away from heated political rhetoric and hits us with some Old Testament. It takes great care with its words, and understands how powerful they are…
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘When I looked for light, then came darkness’ … Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.
James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee November 27, 1909, the year of our Lord. Like his father, whom he adored and never got over, he lived largely, and died in an automobile under the curse of alcohol. His dad was a worker with a manly tenderness, and James Rufus a born writer with an infinitely open tenderness. His career became one of the most varied in American letters. He brought an uncompromising style and a poetic intensity to each medium he graced. In film criticism for The Nation, he crafted a subjective, piercing and personal sort of film review. In screenwriting, he gave us The African Queen and the spooky-fresh Night of the Hunter (for those who enjoyed True Grit’s soundtrack…go to that film). He wrote an inspired life of Abraham Lincoln for the BBC documentary program Omnibus. He wrote an unfilmable Sci-Fi movie for Charlie Chaplin. He was the kind of excitable reader who would pick up, say, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and declare an entire future of the civil rights movement, a change that was sure to come. He just knew!
Agee and his favorite photographer Walker Evans would often times flee places of respectability to parse through garbage bins in search of the real American voices in discarded correspondence. Many of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’s textural choices have roots in this. He was a romantic and an Episcopalian and as such would usually medicate his own guilt about tasting life (read: infidelities) by banging his head on a brick wall, socking his own ears, and writing openly to his childhood priest. Or drinking. Or finding a party of people to entertain with his voice, which, blessed with Shakespearean silkiness and force, was as fit for narration as his writing.
If one sees past his transgressions, he was someone who believed that human life was as precious and important as human art. From his credo before Famous Men:
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.
A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.
As a man so fierce of spirit and in complete disregard of his body, he died quite young, at 45, May 16, 1955. Posthumously, his only proper novel, A Death in the Family, won more readers than he had with his farmer book. In 1958 A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. And in 1960 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men circulated past obscurity to find an audience broader than Agee himself predicted.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is his most vibrant work. In it he lives in the homes of Alabama tenant farmers, and comes away pissed about their living conditions, but also strangely bewildered and inspired. In American Literature, it remains such an anomaly it’s rarely taught. There’s not a lot of finger pointing by way of irony because, frankly, we are all to blame. It’s treatment of his subjects is sincere to a degree that somehow escapes Oscar Wilde’s dictum “all bad poetry is sincere.” It’s anthropology and journalism, but it barely qualifies as reportage–sometimes he seems to be inventing the voices in the characters’ heads.
There’s a How-To listen to Beethoven. Play it full blast with your ear on the cold wood floor next to the speaker. Eventually your body becomes music. “Is what you hear pretty? Or beautiful? Or legal?” he asks. There’s pockets of poetry, often written in the voice of scripture. There’s found objects. At one time we read from the children’s’ Bible story book. There’s confessions by Agee on the moral cost of journalism work. A barroom-fit diatribe about “honest art” is aimed at a literary magazine. As if it were a play, too, there is a Cast-Of Characters. These include the cotton farmers, and an unlikely crew dwelling in Agee’s heightened imaginative state: James Joyce, Celine, William Blake, humorist Ring Lardner, Christ, and Freud.
All of it, when read today, is remarkably strung on strands of Agee’s command and weird inspiration.
He was a precursor. Before Kerouac, Agee was bumming across the U.S.; before Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Agee quested in search of experiential journalism. Agee lived with these taciturn, massively in-debt and toiling families for much longer than it took to make notes on them. Most of the book was written in the heat of the night in an Alabama shack. It was scrutinized, reworded and revised in the heat of various Greenwich village apartments–and between the marital disputes.
As time passed, the revolutionary tenor of the text filtered into surprising areas of establishment life. When former president Jimmy Carter would hand it to friends, they’d ask what it was. He told them that it was poetry.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the super flux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Agee was a Harvard graduate and aspiring poet. He switched to journalism when his college connections bought him a much sought-after editorial job in New York City during the depression. He arrived in Manhattan to see people working extra hours to sell apples on the streets. A pall of poverty stretched over the city. Soup lines extended around block corners. He went to work on the features desk at Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine. He won admirers instantly there, but all the while felt the weirdness of class disparities, himself coming from a modest home in Knoxville, Tennessee. At first he was respectful enough to his colleagues and editors. He pulled his copyboy duties with silence and consistency, unexpectedly diverting his attention from his poetic endeavors.
That James Agee stayed up late at the Chrysler Building office, banging out his own work, the wide windows overlooking the lights of Manhattan and the buzz of Wall Street, his Beethoven blasting. As he wrote more feature stories he gained some clout. A piece he wrote as a correspondent from Tennessee became the place his writing skills really emerged – FDR’s New Deal policies were taking effect with The Tennessee Valley Authority, and Agee’s take on the matter was a poetic triumph. Henry Luce valued stories like this, just as he favored hiring poets to write slickly presented copy for America’s reigning CEOs. Luce called the Tennessee river piece the best feature he’d seen, then sent Agee down South again to work on a story about struggling tenant farmers. Agee had much liberty, for the only request was that he find some farmers.
It must be said that Agee, even as a journalist, had something of the “angel headed hipster” about him. Every story he’d write was overlong, over-felt and over-indulged by his massive conceptual ideas. Many temperamental and tortured part-time poets would come and go at Fortune. But Agee would take stories, some on cock fighting, some on railroads. He stayed longer than any of his colleagues–including the poet Archibald Macleish. Agee would remain on the masthead for 9 years on the strength of his writing. Call it Beautiful Mind effect–editors were willing to wait out an Agee tantrum if they sometimes got sentences like this:
The Tennessee River system begins on the worn magnificent crests of the Southern Appalachians, among the earth’s older mountains, and the Tennessee River shapes its valley into the form of a boomerang, bowing to its sweep through seven states…
And the sentence runs for 8 more lines.
To expand further the magazine’s scope, Luce wanted the piece to describe what life was like for farmers hardest hit by the depression. Walker Evans was appointed as a photographer. This was important to Agee because Evans wasn’t Margaret Bourke White, whose photos, he thought, pandered to a bourgeois audience. Agee wrote a gleaming note about the assignment to his childhood priest Father Flye.
Evans and Agee hit Oklahoma first. They found farmers, but not tenant farmers. The Oklahoman tenant farmer migration was already at its peak, and surrounding states would not reach this point until later, and never to the same degree. In Sprott, Alabama they found a promising area, but just as they arrived, Evans found himself watching Agee suffer another crippling attack of self-doubt. So Evans left Agee at the motel and drove downtown to take random pictures. Outside a courthouse, he found a man named Frank Tingle (Fred Ricketts in the book), who led the journalist pair to a tenant farmer named Bud Fields. The farmers on the plot of land Fields led them to turned out to be three families total. They mistook Agee and Evans for New Deal agents. An infrared awareness of such slight deceits were to constitute the form of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, if it was to contain all of life: “The very blood and semen of journalism…is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.”
The pair took a night to snap shots and make notes. Evans, prim and proper and well-tailored, wanted to find a bigger city. He went to Birmingham for developing the pictures. Agee, son of Tennessee and clinging to his southern roots, told Evans the article wasn’t finished, he would need to stay three weeks. Evans wasn’t surprised, but he couldn’t stay. He usually reserved little tolerance for Agee’s whims and outbursts. He knew Agee was on to something more than what his lens could catch. The inner reserve and dignity that Agee admired so much manifested itself in the composed realities in his pictures.
No one was taking photos like Evans. One of Agee’s personal goals was to trap prose that matched the beauty of the pictures. Evans similarly respected Agee’s gifts, but he was not going to lay anymore in a bug infested bed, or pick cotton in the heat. Agee threw himself into these tasks, however briefly. At night he’d pray and write–which were the same things for him. He took notes on everything: the iron of the beds, the stripes on a girl’s dress, the geometry of the failing fireplace, the isolating proximity of the surrounding pines. The smell of the house clapboards, and the unsavory aromas too.
The reluctant business reporter was particularly sensitive to the moments of unavoidable sadness which directly related to the consumer economy he covered. One thing a struggling family can use to make their house pretty is cheap media. Agee reads their dreams from magazine-cut decorations patched to the fireplace. It reminds one of all the magazines by the cash registers at Wal-Mart, or a teenager’s collage of cut-outs on a cork board … surrounding yourself with the things you can’t have:
…young women bravely and purely facing the gravest problems of life in the shelter of Lysol, portraits of cakes, roast beef, steaming turkeys, and decorated hams, little cards by duplicate and a series depicting incidents in the life of Jesus with appropriate verses beneath, rich landscapes…
These pictures, a sort of uncomfortable blend of piety and purchase, give the families something to look at. But it was the people’s resiliency and hospitality Agee admired. Unsentimentally, he immersed himself, writing down anything they said or any of the gossip around town. He wrote down private woes too. He wanted to feel what wretches feel. The experience drove Agee to a kind of piety– the kind from his adolescent years at St. Andrew’s school, expressed by the words of scripture. At one patch of thought his meditation is a mix of prayer, journalism, stream of consciousness speculation, confession, and agony.
Immersion for the reader is the ultimate result of this stylistic amalgamation. Agee unleashes a series of insults that he heard spoken about the families. He includes the inner doubts of the young girl who lusts after a man and feels guilty. He enters their inner complaints about the living conditions. Sentence follows sentence in perfect rhythm, and just when the reader feels like they can’t hear this suffering anymore, Agee’s stringing quotations switch to paraphrased prayer:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for there’s is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
The beauty of aesthetics (or of insanity perhaps) is that you can jump on a telephone line of voice more fluid, personal and reasonable or perhaps pretty than the incessant voices that seek to define everything (here those voices label the poor, the whore, the meager of means). Indeed these voices seek to define everything but themselves. The agony comes when you can’t put your finger on where those words come from. But they are everywhere–they have made you and in some measure have guided you. That such small thoughts band together to form a gelatinous-sticky and teeming public impression is of course the tragedy that the aesthete deals with every day–the good ones with endurance, imagination and good humor. Today with our sophisticated communication devices it becomes reflex-easy for the voice of slander and rumor to become not just a piece of talk, but half of our day. Words are spelled wrong and they are hardly delivered with the force of the thing our heart means to say–if we are still blessed with articulate hearts. If for no other reason, we should turn to an imperfect, ragged book of moral outrage such as Agee’s so we can gain sight again and remember that there are things people should not do to each other. There’s something youthful and instinctively worthy in watching the young Agee get so mad, and rage at the realities of words. Why wouldn’t he? To him words are everything.
More relevant does the rage artist look in times when it gets harder to hear our neighbors amid distractions and headphones and hums. The skill of Agee’s prose, here, is a human skill of recognizing the way those voices seem to exist outside of us and as one vicious stream inside our worried strains of thought. The calm of his prayer is delivered to the stricken and to himself, and the prayer silences the voices. He won’t master his passions completely in his lifetime–he’ll hardly try–but there are moments when serenity is reached, when the artist finds a quiet place to bless those he’s seen, heard, and remembered.
Agee doesn’t seem to be doing the work as a journalist or novelist in this moment, but rather as a sort of secular priest. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr certainly wouldn’t call Agee’s use of prayer in a piece of modern literature ridiculous. He might see it as a standard example of the “homelessness of the human spirit,” a phrase he uses that matches the solemnity of Agee’s religious feelings here. Niebuhr defines the quality of spirit as the rational person’s ability to survey the world. But to make sense of the world, he cannot look exclusively to the world; that is where the prayer comes in. All the gossip and degradation are rationalized by stepping outside the flow of their original delivery, and what Agee has gleaned is not enough to sustain sustain him as a human being or artist; he must rely on his spirit to restore dignity to the families. James Joyce, one of Agee’s heroes, used the language of scripture in his prose because it was drilled into him in his youth; that language was how he came to understand language in general. But not even he employed it in a way that Agee uses it here: a blessing as a sort of tool. Niebuhr believed the person must stand outside himself and outside of the world to see himself as an instrument of God’s will:
To understand himself truly means to begin with a faith that he is understood from beyond himself, that he is known and loved of God and must find himself in terms of obedience to the divine will. This relation of the divine to the human will makes it possible for man to relate himself to God without pretending to be God.
This is to say Agee isn’t playing God, but trying to function in a spiritual task that’s been asked of him. A disappearance happens in Agee’s passage–remarkable for such an anxious writer. His highly individual style makes us suspicious of his humble religiousness. But here it manages to blend into God’s wishes for mankind. The prayer serves to spiritually liberate the oppressed in Agee’s eyes. It also includes a higher will into the vehicle of a very willful book.
His lifetime confidant Father Flye wrote to him and said the book was a deeply religious book. Agee believed, with the profanity and language indulged in the book, that he’d strayed, and he brushed the comment off. One wishes he hadn’t.
By the time Agee was done staying with the Fields and the Tingles he’d picked up some Southern twang he’d lost during his undergraduate years at Harvard. He didn’t just like writing about them, he liked being around them.
Elizabeth Tingle remembered,
I asked Mr. Jimmy, I said, ‘what kind of sound does your voice got?’ He said, ‘That is the Northern kind of talk. All of them up there’s like that,’ But you know, when they left here, they got to where they was talking our kind of talk.
Agee continued bonding and writing well into the night. He wasn’t able to shake the deep impressions inside that betrayed him as a spy of sorts, and a stranger to the region where he was born. Rushing feelings had their play on James’s admiration for the farmers. He tries to go home at one point. He even tries to wreck his car, like his father did, but Mr. Fields comes across and helps him out, driving Agee back to his house to eat a large meal. His admiration and sense of humility spill over the rim of his thoughts.
Agee is genuinely awestruck by simplicity and kindness. Perhaps what separates Agee from other Southern writers and from journalists is the way he sustains a sense of joy and wonder. Even today this would fit him for the aliens Wayne Coyne dreams about; It’s not at all an exaggeration to call some of his tiny-scripted prose enchanted:
We lay on our backs about 2 feet apart in silence, our eyes open, listening. The land that was under us lay down all around us, and its continuance was enormous as if we were chips or matches, floated, holding their own by their very minuteness, at a great distance out upon the surface of a tenderly laboring sea. The sky was even larger.
Despite the grit and dirt of the assignment, Agee never stopped laboring to restore dignity to his subjects. He performs a kind of alchemy, touched with the direct address he admired in letters he stole from trash cans. He used these genuine articles of correspondence as a model for certain passages:
Louise, for your skin was a special, quiet, glowing gold color, which can never come upon the nicely middle little girls in towns or cities but those who came straight out of the earth and are continually upon it in the shining of the sun…”
If any one wanted to accuse Agee of being “too much,” then they’d just have to look back on his life story to see a largeness of spirit that abounded. Over the years those actions sublimate into the power of his writing. The smallest gestures are still small, but should be noted in the way they speak to his writing attitude. Agee’s writing is his character, his character his writing.
Bumming after a semester of college, Agee was picked up by a Buick from Oklahoma. He drives by a black hobo and asks the driver to pick him up. The driver promptly declines. Then James begins a fantasy, in his journals, in which he hands over his own shoes and socks to the bum.
Back at Harvard, he’s set up with a gay roommate, Tom Raywood, who tries to persuade Agee in a mock-suave manner to stop dating those petty girls. Raywood’s manners and obviousness in coming on to him disgust Agee (“If I weren’t so sorry I’d murder him”). The student gets shunted from hall to hall. Agee finally takes him to the entry steps and talks with him one night into the dawn, paraphrasing Raywood’s concerns, “Sure, I know, it’s lousy. Jesus knows, it’s lousy.”
Having seen the opposite from my own peers, this particular story stands in sharp contrast. One of the first moments of friction I witnessed living in the OU dorms was when an acquaintance came to me outraged that his roommate came out of the closet. He’d known the guy for years, and all this time, they’d been sleeping in the same room. A few days later he put in a request for a roommate change. There was of course no long talk. Those kinds of talks, I now think, are rare and undergone by those with the character to do so.
Agee’s sensitivities could be an albatross. I don’t think any novelist would recommend getting as close as he did to the Field and Tingle families. His personal life was chaos. Once during the writing stage, he took his second wife Alma to a suburb to work quietly. At that home he took in a bum and a goat, both of which he’d have to abandon, the goat to a butcher, guiltily, the bum left in their dark living room where the furniture had mysteriously disappeared. The neighborhood kids felt compelled to write on his window
THE MAN WHO LIVES HERE IS LOONY.
Agee returned to New York to write, and the distractions and alcohol again started taking their toll on Agee and the book. He and his 2nd wife Alma divorced. Agee started going out more, and reading the book aloud to his soon-to-be 3rd wife Mia and any colleague who would listen. The admirers were many once Agee’s kinetic film reviews for The Nation ran–wannabe wild journalists would drive to the Stork Club to see Agee, where he may be banging on tables to illustrate film edits, tipping the tables over. Fortune magazine had long since dropped Agee’s article, and so the testament to the downtrodden had taken on the form of something no one had seen. His first publisher sent him a humbling letter of suggested changes. Agee wrote up a protest against the agency. Agee said he would make the changes if they would publish his protest at the front of the book. They dropped the book. Agee kept writing. After three years the look of the country changed. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath arrived and pretty much claimed every American reader interested in the dispossessed. The Nazi armies invaded Poland. As Agee wrote and wrote, the depression became old news.
So he watched lots of movies in the dark, and he drank. No matter how much he drank he never seemed drunk to his friends. He womanized. He roamed the streets. He wrote his priest. He let his attention fray so many different directions that friends noticed that things seemed to merely happen to Agee, and that he did not have control over them.
What kept him centered was work on a project no one wanted. The fact that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men represents a leap of faith makes itself clear in the text. In spite of his difficult, existential rants the book at its crests remains utterly readable. The theme turns out to be the leap of faith itself, the fact that someone could dive completely into a task without reservation. Meanwhile, he realistically predicted it would be a curious object, important only to hardcore writers. One night, he set his papers neatly aside and attained a rare mood of calm. He wrote to reporter colleague Robert Fitzgerald:
I regret parts of it and have doubts of some other parts, but on the whole have a feeling I’ve never before much enjoyed, of knowing why I have done this….and of believing in the why I have done it…It’s worth the try so far.
The chronic procrastinator and talker would finish a work of art.
One of the people who’d heard Agee read from the book was Eunice Clark, a Vassar graduate and Fortune researcher. When she became a talent scout for Houghton Mifflin, she sent it to the top editors. It was called a great oddity, in “a deep American vein of dissent worthy of Melville and Thoreau.” They’d edit out the bad words in Massachusetts and disregard Agee’s request that it be printed on newspaper. It printed and sold a few hundred. Today, Violette publishes a lovely coffee table edition–noticeably not found in OKC bookstores. Walker Evans’s pictures preface the journey, and then Agee begins his deeply principled rebellion.
Most readers were puzzled. The New York Times called it “arrogant, mannered, precious, gross.” On the other hand, some important critics have championed it. Lionel Trilling (the professor whom Allen Ginsberg spurned) said he felt sure it was a great book. He pardoned every self lacerating attempt Agee made to filter what he saw through the doubts in his mind–efforts which make up a good deal of the book, and render some passages tedious even for this Agee admirer. Agee’s sensibility was “moral rather than a physical sensibility,” Trilling wrote in the Kenyon Review, “The book is full of marvelous writing which gives a kind of hot pleasure that words can do so much.” Father Flye wrote back to Agee, “I find in it a sympathy, a love, a care for human beings which makes me think of our lord.” Today the book becomes a pillar in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto to David Shields; it’s a book he says dissolves every genre and creates its own.
It was costly. Agee would gather himself to write one more book from a place similar to this one. But the drinking finally took its toll on his body. While living in his head, he neglected the respect and awe his peers had for him. John Huston, Walker Evans, Charles Chaplin, the poets W.H. Auden and Archibald MacLeish all did what they could to keep Agee working. His stubborn emotional drive stands alongside that of Hart Crane and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kurt Cobain and Mozart and John Keats or Elliot Smith as an ominous statement on the incompatibility between fiery romance and living in the world. Some physically enduring artists seem to be the ones who can manage their emotions. Agee died without knowing he’d win America’s highest prize or without the public opinion that he’d invented a new journalism.
In July 1988 a journalist writing for The New Yorker, John Hersey, wrote a tender short history of Agee’s life that does not conclude with his death, but rather conveys how his legacy has expanded. In this ending, the year is 1964 and John Hersey follows ivy league colleagues to Holmes County, Alabama one hot summer. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been re-released and selling by the thousands. Hersey took Agee’s lead and witnessed the Civil Rights struggle by living, as a journalist, in the small house of a black farmer and his family. Around him were other students helping with voter registration. “An astonishing number of them had brought Agee along with them,” Hersey noticed. They responded to the same Agee who wanted to give his socks and shoes to black hitch hikers, and the Agee who felt sandwiched between America’s vicious cultural bookends. There are myriad ways we can view Agee today. Deep in a recession, we look to our wretched, or just at ourselves, and see countless living without health care or under a mound of debt. The farmers were tenants; we have credit cards and foreclosure. The man’s character is another consideration. Even Proposition 8 picketers would surely admire the James Agee who stayed up all night with an awkward, gay collegiate to open a line of frank communication.
This brings us to that aspect of the book that trumps all others for Hersey, a quality that keeps it alive to those of us who find it:
He certainly did, as Trilling pointed out, idealize his three tenant families. Love idealizes, and one of the attractive things about Agee’s writing is that with all his remarkably skeptical intelligence, and despite his many declared doubts and weaknesses…
he was capable of copious, unsentimental, generous, searing love.
(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved.